...tonight's edition of HOUSE is seen through the point of view of a patient. Huh??? David Isaacs and I wrote that in 1978 for MASH. It's kind of a famous episode. I just watched a preview of the HOUSE episode and it looks like the exact same show. Or maybe it’s just an “homage”. You can see the preview here.
I constantly get readers who want to know about POINT OF VIEW so I figured this might be a good time to share the story again.
The problem with constructing “our” version was finding a story to go along with the convention. A soldier is injured, treated and saved by those lovable wacky medicos at the 4077th. But what’s his injury? Where’s the suspense? And more importantly, how does he connect with our central characters?
We heard of a 1947 movie that used this first-person device called LADY IN THE LAKE. It was a Raymond Chandler mystery with Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe. Or, more accurately, Robert Montgomery’s voice. So we screened the movie. Holy shit! What we found was that when someone talked to Marlowe it was fine, but when Marlowe spoke the other actors had nothing to do but stare uncomfortably into the camera and try to react (this was not Jayne Meadow’s best work). It was sooooo dicey. Not to mention static, boring, and…well, downright creepy.
It seemed to us the key to making this device work was not having the soldier talk. And that sparked our story. What if the patient is hit in the throat? He can’t speak. He must undergo a series of tricky operations (the suspense) until finally he is able to utter only two words –
In the HOUSE version the patient can talk but no one hears him. I haven’t seen the complete episode but even from the preview it seems disconcerting to hear this voice out of nowhere… and that voice is supposed to be you.
Getting back to our story, it now laid itself out pretty easily. We created a B story where Potter forgets his anniversary and the patient informs Hawkeye which leads to the resolution. That way the soldier is directly involved in the story. One of the show’s highlights for me was how masterful Harry Morgan played the scene in which he confided in the young soldier. Not a dry seat in the house!
We wanted to really utilize the visual, give the viewer a different perspective whenever possible. What did it look like actually being in the chopper, gazing down at the camp, being on a stretcher during the insanity of triage, being wheeled into OR?
So much credit for the success of the episode goes to director, Charles Dubin. And remember, he had only three days to film this, not three weeks…or months. And this was 1978, before steady cams. I think D. W. Griffith used this camera to shoot BIRTH OF A NATION. It couldn’t have been heavier or more unwieldy. Judging from the HOUSE preview the camerawork is more fluid but the effect is no more effective.
The MASH cast was marvelous, really rising to the occasion. It’s hard enough to relate to fellow actors, but to play highly emotional scenes looking directly into a camera has to be nearly impossible. Additionally, scenes all had to play out in one take. We couldn’t cut back and forth between characters and angles and takes. To this day I marvel at their skill.
Trivia note: We gave the patient the name Bobby Rich. Bobby is one of my dearest friends, currently hosting a morning radio show in Tucson.
When the show was completed we watched the finished product in a screening room. I was horrified. There was Radar’s giant head filling this huge screen, addressing all of us tiny ants in the theater. AAAAAAGH!!! As I sat in the dark, contemplating my next career, I wondered how I could reconcile the fact that I personally had destroyed MASH. How’s THAT going to look on my resume?
The show aired on a Monday night during November sweeps. I almost didn’t watch it. When it began I cringed. A few moments into it Radar appeared. And a strange thing happened. The show suddenly worked.
Seeing Radar’s head on a TV screen, the comparable size of most human beings (Only Barry Bonds has a head the size of Radar’s on the silver screen.) the audience was able to buy the conceit. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. By the act break I canceled my 11 PM flight to Antarctica.
I look back at that show today with great pride. We were allowed to take risks. Encouraged to take risks. And even if the show had been the “GLEN OR GLENDA of television” that it appeared to be that dark day in the screening room, I would still be proud to be a part of it. To the cast and crew and everyone involved in POINT OF VIEW, all I can say is –
And now I can take our script, change Hawkeye to House and I have a spec drama to show around.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Ken Levine at 8:55 PM